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June 21, 2013

Search, rescue drill keeps fire crews sharp

By Cathy B. Koplen Contributing writer
The Daily Star

---- — Four area fire departments came together Wednesday night for a search-and-rescue training exercise at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park.

The Westford Volunteer Fire Department coordinated the exercise, which also included Worcester, Schenevus and West Worcester volunteer fire departments. The event was intended to troubleshoot any problems that might occur in an actual emergency.

“Several years ago, the officers from four fire departments — Schenevus, Worcester, East Worcester and Westford — had a meeting,” said Westford Fire Chief Ralph Ritton. “We recognized that none of us had the manpower to handle incidents that we were getting alone.”

Ritton said that the four fire departments formed an agreement to work together on all structure fires. The exercise was intended to expand their coordinated efforts.

Kevin Ritton, Ralph’s son and the emergency services coordinator for Otsego County, created a scenario that was kept secret from the participating fire departments. With the help of Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park employee Joe Ritton (also related to Ralph and Kevin), two dummies — called Rescue Randys — were placed into the woods.

Dispatch was called to report a possible missing person at the park. All communications about the drill included a statement that this was a drill. Had an actual emergency happened during the training exercises, all participants were instructed to preface communications with, “This is real world.”

At 6:30 p.m., the tone was sounded and dispatch sent Westford emergency responders to the location. Three emergency vehicles arrived within 10 minutes. After searching for about 30 minutes and finding nothing, the Westford team called for assistance.

The other teams arrived within 22 minutes and set up a command center. The Westford fire chief briefed the other team leaders.

“We have a possible missing person,” Chief Ritton said. “State Park employee James Smith, age 65, was reported missing by his family.

His supervisor said he found a note from Smith saying he was going on foot to clear trails in the park. His vehicle is still parked at the maintenance shop and a chainsaw is missing.”

The scenario included a description of Smith and said that the family expected him to be home at 4 p.m., as is his custom. In the scenario, Smith’s wife called the park supervisor at 6 p.m. and told him that the family had searched for Smith on four-wheelers but had not located him.

The four teams quartered the park trails and began a search. At approximately 8 p.m., the command center received a report that a subject was found with life-threatening injuries due to a four-wheeler accident.

It was not James Smith.

This was a surprise that was not included in the scenario given to the responders.

A few minutes later, a Rescue Randy with a florescent tag proclaiming him to be Smith was found by the rescue personnel.

“You never know what we will find when we respond to a call,” said Kevin Ritton.

EMS personnel extracted the two victims from the woods and brought them back to the command post. A landing area for a Life Flight helicopter was designated. Had the scenario been real, the unknown accident victim would have been airlifted to the nearest trauma center.

“This was a realistic exercise,” said Kevin Ritton. “A lot of times, people don’t want to report someone missing at first. The family will search for them. When we get the call, the person may have been missing for hours.”

In fact, the Westford Fire Department responded to a missing person’s report Saturday.

“We thought we were going to have an actual emergency here at the park last Saturday,” Kevin Ritton said. “We received a call from a family on a neighboring piece of property. A man with Alzheimer’s was missing. The call came in at 6 p.m., but when we interviewed the family, we found out he had not been seen since 4:30.”

The man was found near Milford. He had walked eight miles from his residence.

After the training exercise was completed Wednesday night, the four departments met at the Sunset Pavilion in the park and discussed improvements they should implement to ensure the safety of all those involved in search-and-rescue.